Until advertisers start paring back their spending on Facebook, Congress, Ms. Haugen and the press are but bumps in the road. Why would Pfizer or Nike walk away? Facebook is where their buyers are, and it’s where Pfizer can ensure that drug marketing will be seen by 40-something rheumatoid arthritis sufferers.
Reporting indicates that Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg rarely heed the advice of their own researchers who have detailed solutions to the growing incidents of hate speech and political unrest on the site. But Facebook is likely to listen to those who control the purse strings. On a day when at least a dozen stories critical of Facebook published and Ms. Haugen appeared before British Parliament urging tighter tech regulation, Mr. Zuckerberg began his prepared earnings remarks lamenting the impact of Apple’s iPhone privacy changes on Facebook’s ad business.
There’s a precedent for marketers to express outrage. Last year, more than 1,000 advertisers briefly cut their spending on Facebook to protest its failures to curtail hate speech and misinformation. The boycott led to some positive changes, including hiring civil rights experts and tightening controls on extremism in Facebook groups.
Advertisers had strong words for Facebook then, calling the lack of care in its moderation approach “extreme” and saying the platform faced “a time of reckoning.” They have been silent so far this time. But the problem with a temporary cut to ad spending is that it usually comes roaring back later — and so it has with Facebook.
A 2017 ad boycott of YouTube by Walmart, AT&T, Pepsi and other major advertisers, after it was revealed that Google was placing ads alongside content from Nazis and other extremists, led YouTube to tighten its controls over who could monetize their content. Two years later, another ad boycott of the video platform yielded similar results.
Of course, pulling advertising from, say, Jeanine Pirro’s or Tucker Carlson’s cable news talk shows is not the same as cutting ties with some 3.6 billion people who use Facebook and its other apps. But if aligning with a site facilitating human trafficking, ethnic cleansing and vicious cartels isn’t sufficient to give advertisers pause, it’s hard to imagine what would.
“Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change,” as Ms. Haugen put it before Congress.
Facebook has demonstrated it won’t address its systemic problems until forced to do so. Now, it appears, only advertisers can make the status quo unprofitable and unsustainable.